Karen Brown is the author of Pins and Needles: Stories, which received the Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction, and Little Sinners and Other Stories, winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize. Her novel, The Lost Girl, will be published by Atria/Simon & Schuster. Her story “The Authoress” appears in the Fall 2013 issue of The Kenyon Review.
Can you identify the seed of inspiration of your story “The Authoress”? What was the hardest part about writing it?
A few summers ago I read Juliet Barker’s excellent The Brontes. I can’t remember now what prompted my seeking it out, but I was fascinated by the siblings’ isolated lives, their writing process, and the tragedy of their early deaths. After I finished the book I reread Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights—I hadn’t read them since I was twelve—and I realized how unique they were, and how much of the sisters’ sensibilities were part of the text. I was most interested in Emily, and the speculation that she’d completed another novel which had been destroyed by Charlotte after her death. As a writer I was horrified. Had Charlotte acted to protect Emily’s memory? What did she really think of her sister’s manuscript? I’m the eldest in a family of five girls. As children my youngest sister and I wrote serial stories on an old portable Olympia, handed down to me from my uncle. I’d type a scene, and head off to do something else, and she’d take a seat and add another scene or two. It was easy for me to imagine the Bronte-like sisters living in the Connecticut suburbs, to be so immersed in their invented stories that their lives felt secluded and separate from the rest of the world. The difficulty I encountered was managing the flood of details about the sisters’ family history that steered the story toward a larger one. These had to be harnessed in to arrive at some semblance of a conclusion, and I still feel the full story hasn’t yet been told.
I’m curious about your writing process for “The Authoress,” specifically in regards to the characters’ origins. Which character(s) did you imagine or conceive of first? Mr. Philbrick, the “reformed” rapist? Bess and her Bronte-like sisters? Lady Sylvia? Which characters came later in the process?
Bess and Maureen came first. I wanted to step into their lives after the loss of their sister, Franny, who was their peacekeeper and surrogate mother. I imagined Bess and Maureen writing a story together, getting into arguments about the directions in which they each take the characters, and having no way to resolve them without Franny. They also are forced to return to public school and deal with the contemporary world. All of this was interesting tension, but Mr. Philbrick and his dog were needed to heighten it, to cause the larger rift between the sisters. The addition of the details of the story the sisters are composing—that of Lady Sylvia and Mr. Kincaid—was just added fun for me, but it ended up threading its way deeper into the story than I knew it would. It was interesting to explore the way that writers’ lives might influence their narratives.
What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
I completed and published my first novel, and the revision process—the way that the story, once you know it, can be retold a variety of ways—was something very new for me. A novel is so long, and the idea of going back into it and reshaping it is daunting. But I learned it’s possible. I also learned that it makes the writing experience new again, and that though a variety of ways to tell a single story exists, there is ultimately one best way, and this way involves the reader more than I’d considered before.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
I suspect that most writers would agree that there isn’t a part of their life that is non-writing-related. Everyone we meet, everywhere we go, and everything we participate in become part of the material we draw on for stories. For me setting plays such an important role, so visiting a new place—an old house, a neighborhood, an island in the Caribbean, or even hearing about a place from someone—seems to influence my writing the most. As I was writing “The Authoress” I was reading about the old resorts in Moodus, Connecticut. These lodges and camps were great country getaways during the early part of the twentieth century—some are still in operation today. Like the Catskill resorts they offered private cottages, swimming, activities, and colorful staff members in charge of entertainment. I read about one that was recently abandoned, and the images of the swimming pool grown through with weeds, the still furnished cottages succumbing to moisture and the encroaching woods, were haunting. I never did work the abandoned resort into the story—but I liked the idea of it lurking in the background, and I imagine if I decide to expand the story into something more it will play a much bigger part.
Of all the things you could be doing, why do you write?
Writing was an extension of playing house for me as a child. (Playing house I was always the director: “You say, ‘Hurry, we must go!’ and I’ll say, ‘We can’t leave without the baby!’”) When I grew too old to dress up I began to write down stories. I’ve just always enjoyed manipulating situations and characters, and I practiced putting down what I saw and smelled and heard, and tried to recreate things as best as I could. Later I realized that stories, manipulated a certain way, left something almost tangible in their wake, and so I kept trying to do that. I doubt I’ll ever stop.